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Meg Barker reports on the 8th Conference of Women Playwrights International

I attended the 8th Conference of
Women Playwrights International
(WPI) that was held in Mumbai, India, November 1-7, 2009. After the conference, the hosts prepared an 8th WPI Conference web site, so details can be found there.

I am an amateur playwright, myself, with a paid profession that includes grant administration and international relations.  I am on the Board of ICWP, and came to the WPI conference as its Director of International Partnerships.  The slant of my report, then, is from an administrator's perspective. 

The 8th WPI Conference was hosted in the busy city of Mumbai, India and was faced with logistical challenges that likely had to be met with a constrained budget.    The two key sources of administrative, logistical and technical support were: 
•    Stree Mukti Sanghatana, a non-government organization (NGO) launched in 1975 in Maharashtra state in India whose mission is to raise the status of women and enable them to gain political, legal and economic parity with men. 
•    The Academy of Theatre Arts at Mumbai University, including both faculty and students at the Academy.

I was not able to obtain the exact figures on participation, but I understand some 250 or more delegates attended the conference, most of them coming from India but about 80 from all around the world. 

The conference embraced both ends of the spectrum in playwrighting and theatre, from activist, political theatre involving community members to professional troupes. Along with women playwrights and playwrighting, talent in acting, dancing, music and directing were evident at the conference. 

Delegates from India came primarily from Maharashtra state, including students of theatre at the University of Mumbai and elsewhere, however there were representatives from other states.  For example, I met delegates from Goa and Pondicherry.

 WPI delegates Rosemary (Australia), Helen (UK),
Tara (Canada), Margot (Canada), Patricia (Italy)

Mumbai Conference Delegates
Most of the foreign delegates tended to be professionals with productions to their credit. They spanned the age range of mid-20’s to maybe 70 years or so.  Nearly all delegates came with a play to be read during the reading sessions, though there was the odd administrator or new playwright, such as myself.   It seems a number of delegates experienced problems in coming to the conference and typically these problems related to the need to obtain visas.  For example, one Chinese delegate made it all the way to Mumbai only to be turned away due to a lack of, or problem with, her visa.


WPI Delegates Bev (UK), Lynne (US) Jan (Australia), Vanessa (US) Sandra (Australia) Rosemary (Australia) Maureen (Australia)

The program for the WPI conference was available on the day of registration, and it comprised an outline of the  activities for the week.  At the end of week, a souvenir publication was provided that described the key sponsors, the management and advisory levels for the 8th conference, synopses of the main productions and a list of the readings.

WPI delegates (in the foreground) Jordan (Canada), Marcia (Canada), Gail (Canada).
Mumbai Conference Delegates
The daily program for the WPI 8th Conference kept us busy and engaged.  The first session at 10:00 am comprised a plenary session such as a key-note speech, an overall WPI meeting or a type of country-based showcase. Walks or busing across campus then followed, to attend readings of individual plays for the period 11:00am-1:00pm.  These workshops took place in parallel tracks.  Following a late lunch, there were panel discussions, usually including high-profile theatre and activist personalities in India and elsewhere.  Then, the rest of the day and evening was dedicated to Indian and other theatre productions prepared for the WPI event, with a break for dinner at around  7:00pm. 

View the 8th WPI Conference Schedule here (opens in a new window)  
I believe there were diverse views about the conference among delegates, including which were its most spectacular productions, inspiring key note speeches, thoughtful panel discussions and intriguing play-readings.  In truth, the program was so rich that it is difficult to choose.  For me, I think the highlight was the panel discussion that took place on the “Pain and Pleasure of Women Directors” on Friday, November 6. 

In addition to Indian and Swedish personalities, the panel included a representative from Pakistan, a well-known Pakistani Director, Madeeha Gauhar.  Her courage, and that of her troupe, in standing up to the reactionary military regime to raise awareness of the regression that fell upon women with the imposition of a dictatorship 30 years ago is truly admirable.  Even her presence at the conference, at a time of deepening Indian-Pakistan distrust and suspicion, was remarkable, and a testimonial to the peaceful approaches preferred by womens’ organizations such as WPI. 
All in all, delegates had a lot of fun, learned from one another, and encountered a great variety of artistic work on show.  The artistic work that was presented, along with the Mumbai conference site itself, communicated some essential messages to the delegates from other countries.  These include the more hazardous, everyday circumstances  of individuals inhabiting societies in transition to developed markets, where democracy, liberty and security are uncertain.  Traditionalism and sexism, militarism, injury, environmental precariousness and pollution, illness and death are issues that are much more pronounced for women and artists in the developing world than in the more industrialized economies.

ICWP at the Conference
ICWP members who were able to attend the conference included Andrea Stolowitz (Portland, Oregon, USA), Sherry Bokser (New York, USA) and Lia Gladstone (from Oregon, but currently working at the American University of Afghanistan).  A past ICWP member present at the conference was Janice Liddell (USA). 
In my conversations with the range of WPI delegates, I discovered that there was not much awareness of ICWP.  My basic message in these discussions was that ICWP provides a type of steady, inspirational, professional and moral support for women playwrights, based around the Internet.  It could be considered an appropriate complement to the in-person, event-driven WPI.   I encouraged WPI delegates to visit the web site and join as members.  I also commented that there was good potential for ICWP to complement WPI, with each organization providing different but helpful services.
Andrea joined me for a brief presentation on ICWP that we provided on Friday morning, November 6.  I outlined the overall mission of ICWP and described its programs.  Andrea gave a personal testimonial about the support that is offered to playwrights by ICWP’s mailing list and web site.  She also alerted the audience about the  call for submissions for the upcoming ICWP publication “Scenes from a Diverse World”.  There appeared to be a lot of interest in the call, and ICWP.    We provided the web site address and urged delegates to visit.

Next steps for WPI 

Elections took place for the next Management Committee of WPI on Friday, November 6.  The new members are:
•  Lene Therese Tegen of Bergen, Norway
•  Marcia Johnson of Toronto, Canada; 
•  Malou Jacob of Manilla, Philippines;
•  Karen Jeyes of Sanddrift, South Africa
•  Linda Paris Bailey, USA

Keep an eye on the WPI web site to learn more.

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